An aeronautical term that came into use since I left the airport scene has piqued my curiosity. The term is “NextGen” – the modernization of the nation’s air transportation system. It’s been partly around for a while, slowly replacing post WWII’s radar based system with 21st century technology. Think about it. The aviation industry is barely a century old. Join me in a trip back in time to look at improvements in air navigation.
On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers first took flight over a sandy dune in North Carolina. A mere 15 years later, serious aviators were putting the airplane to good use for commercial purposes. Forget the thrill-seeking barnstormers. Private citizens began to demonstrate useful reasons to fly, like shipping the mail by air.
The Post Office supported this idea, but needed a system of navigational aids to help their pilots travel safely at night. In 1921, airmail pilot Jack Knight flew from North Platte, Nebraska to Chicago in a nighttime adventure with the aid of lighted bonfires along a pre-determined route. Fellow postal workers, farmers and members of the public along the way lit and maintained those fires. This demonstration led to the construction of light beacons on towers installed every 15 to 25 miles along postal air routes. On a clear night, it was reported, a pilot could see the line of beacons for 40 miles.
By the late 1920’s, pilots had a compass, altimeter, gyroscope (an artificial horizon on their instrument panel) and two-way communication with the ground. Bigger and safer airplanes began accommodating passengers as well as air mail. Congress, still focusing on the protection of the air mail process, passed the first legislation regarding aviation, the Air Commerce Act of 1926. It provided for a system of aids to navigation, established airways (highways in the sky), instituted licensing for pilots and registration of aircraft, and set forth air traffic rules for safe flying.
In 1928, the federal government established a radio navigation bacon system that now guided pilots by sound, not by sight. Pilots listened to the beeps from a beacon along the route. If the signal weakened, they adjusted their direction until the signal grew louder and stayed on course.
It was not until the 1940’s that the beacons and were replaced. The VOR (very high frequency omnidirectional radio range) was born. The “blip” of the VOR station on an instrument in the cockpit replaced the “beep” of the hilltop beacon. Radar came of age during WWII and, today, air traffic controllers watch every dot in the sky and guide the dots that are flying within ATC’s airspace.
Highways in the sky, VOR stations and the use of radar have successfully guided the nation’s commercial and business aircraft for many years. While efficient and effective for a very long time, the new and improved navigational aids of “NextGen” have become necessary. Parts of that system are already in use, but the skies are filled with airplanes and the old system is on overload. A typical day produces about 4000 airplanes in the sky over the United States. Equipped with “NextGen” technology, precision satellite monitoring and satellite-based routes will improve aviation safety, reduce flight time, and benefit the environment. Not bad!
[ To dig deeper: www.centennialofflight.net/essay/government_role/POL13.htm ]